The movie house Mercury on Espana straddled both the corners of Trabajo and Maria Cristina. On the other side of the broad street was the North General Hospital, a government hospital which served the medical needs of the Sampaloc district. The younger children in our family, myself included, were born in this hospital. The family had lived here even before the Japanese occupation and we just resettled at war’s end after taking refuge in a safe haven in Wawa, a barrio in Rosario Cavite during the war years.
It would have been a typical and nondescript post war Manila neighborhood if it were not for the fact that the Maria Cristina we lived in was made unique by it being a cul de sac. Our little neighborhood cluster stretched from Espana up to about 300 meters ending up in an estero. Our street was the only one which did not have a bridge to span the fetid estero waters. The streets de la Fuente, Don Quixote and Dos Castillas had bridges either a vehicular or a pedestrian one. Because of this isolation our neighborhood had residents enjoying close ties despite it being a neighborhood of mixed demographics.
Our house was a typical antebellum two story one with concrete base and wooden walls with fancy iron grills wrapped around the second floor of the house. The grills extended from the balcony to the bottom part of the window sills of the living room and the bedrooms. It had an azotea at the back. The balcony on the second floor was a favorite place where we would while away the time looking out into the street watching passersby. Most pedestrians would be familiar faces since very few people who are not from the neighborhood could be seen passing through. Sometimes a car would make a wrong turn only to find out that the street ended abruptly at the estero. With a bit of meanness I found it hilarious to see the car back up the whole 300 meters’ length to Espana.
It was not exactly the best of places to grow up in. It was a mixed neighborhood where families of the upper middle and the lowliest class where all thrown in together in a situation where each one found it difficult to avoid each other because of the smallness of the place. My family was middle class and my Mom found it necessary to be strict with my sisters so that they may not mingle with the Maria Cristina boys whom by her standards she considered undesirable little realizing that her own boys were of the same ilk. She tried to do the same strictness with us boys in the family but without much success. Early in our boyhood my brothers and I have mastered the art of escape and deception just so we could be spend more time with the boys in the neighborhood. What has stayed on in my mind was the unique whistled call my mother use to make whenever she summoned us for Angelus, to do errand or for some other urgent call. It was a wonder how we were able to hear its shrill and sibilant sound even from as far as the estero or even at the lobby of Mercury theater which was a turn away from the corner of Maria Cristina. It must have been a whistle sound that was at a special frequency which would be audible only to us Roa boys.
My mother didn’t know about the sawed of bars of our window in the ground floor bedroom which four of us boys shared. An older brother said that the window bars were not really sawed off. It corroded due to the repeated peeing of us boys from the window because we didn’t have a toilet at that level of the house. Each night we laid out our pillows lengthwise with a round thing at the upper end and covered it with bed sheet to fake our presence in bed. With the mosquito net as additional camouflage the deception was complete.
My two older brothers were much more daring. When they needed a car in the evening they would quietly open the iron gates and push out my father’s 1947 Plymouth sedan. The car had a humongous body that looked like and was as heavy as a Sherman tank. Upon reaching the corner of Espana they would start the car with my parents oblivious of the great escape. They would wake up in the morning none the wiser except for my father’s wondering about the level of the gas gauge. My mother was happy with the thought that her boys were always home at the right hours, prayed the Angelus, were no truants and did not mingle with the riff raff made up of boys whose fathers were jeepney drivers, laborers, postmen, small time clerks and others of low and sometimes scurrilous trades. There were a few families whom she considered “like us”, whose pater familias were of a high stature in the companies they worked in, university professors and those who have distinguished themselves in small enterprises as well as in the socio-civic and church organizations. It was only the older folks who made social demarcation lines. The young ones were not aware of these differences. With the boys in the neighborhood every one was treated as an equal and there was genuine fellowship all around.
Sharing was a virtue that was expansively practiced. Drinks, food, party clothes, shoes, guitars and other shareable things would be generously lent, sometimes given to another if with good reason. My older brother whose command of the English language was better than most would write love letters for the love struck but inarticulate guys, my other brother would share his expertise in mahjong by pooling capital with the other boys when he played and invariably won against the neighborhood “quorum” of matrons. Windfalls would be celebrated by sponsoring drinking bashes, buying and sharing Chinese food from the corner Chinaman’s store or buying a new net for the basketball goal. At times my brothers would ask permission from the jeepney owners to do a late hour rota to raise money for some needs of the group. These late hour rotas would be without the usual “boundary” due to the owner so all the proceeds from the fare, albeit small, would go to the common fund. I don’t remember having contributed anything to the gang. At my age then, there was nothing of worth coming from me that could be appreciated by the group except for the occasional sharing of fruits that our grandfather sent from Davao.
The attractions that compel an adolescent to be out in the nooks and recesses of Maria Cristina were varied.
Despite my being less adventurous than my brothers, I, too, have been drawn by the beckoning of the adventures and iniquitous enjoyments to be had the moment you tread outside our secure but boring house.
For a young lad barely into his teens the astonishment of having so many opportunities for adventure was staggering. This was an urban barrio were the self appointed elders (actually the older boys from eighteen to early twenties) took it as their responsibility the welfare of the young boys in the neighborhood. They were serious in facilitating rites of passage to the young lads as they transition into manhood. They would act as “godfathers” to the boys as they undergo their “baptism” of having their first sexual encounter, their first sip of alcohol, their first time to go to a nightclub and dance with taxi dancers, their first cigarette, circumcision and other things one is expected to do to affirm manhood. Of course, not everyone could be herded into these, but, the shame and the jeering from those who have participated were very compelling pressures. The stigma of not having taken part of the group’s initiation was so harsh that some of those who were able to evade were obliged to go to the other streets like de la Fuente, Don Quixote, Dos Castillas or in Maria Cristina across Espana for their belongingness needs. But this sort of exiles you away from your home, expatriated as it were.
I have experienced all that were in the menu of the “elders” but not all were necessarily through their ministrations. I had older brothers who on occasion would take it upon themselves to assist me through my awkward stepping into manhood. My father was not one whom you could expect to assist his sons in these things. He believes that boys will discover these for themselves and that these would happen as a matter of course. His boys will, on their own come to manhood, with or without his help.
This was Maria Cristina of my youth. With all the wrong influences surrounding my formative years I could have turned bad but with God’s grace I didn’t. There must have been something about that kind of milieu that had positive effects in me. My having two sets of behavior, one for the house and the other for the street could be a possible explanation. My Mom was a stern disciplinarian and Dad was a non-smoking, non gambling, non-drinking and non-womanizing role model of a father. Between these two environmental influences, the home and street, the virtues inculcated at home won out. Also, the positive aspects of street life such as being non-judgmental about people, sharing, good insight on character and a keen survival instinct honed by a coping life whether my own or a vicarious one played their part. I turned out to be a god fearing person, an exemplary family man with strong moral convictions and with a fairly successful career.